The Promise and Possibility of Open Access Publishing


    Open access (OA) publishing is a model of publishing that mainly shifts the costs of publishing an article from the reader to the authors and distributes scholarly works online without paywalls or other barriers.

    The concept of open access is part of a larger movement called Open Science that seeks to make scientific documents, data, and research more accessible and equitable.

    For medical communicators, it is important to distinguish between OA (sometimes called Gold OA) and predatory publishing, which subverts the peer-review publication system for profit. 

    The Open Access Model

    The stated goal of the open access model is to make scientific research accessible to everyone.

    However, the practice of open access publishing shifts the burden of publishing research from readers to authors. Most authors who publish in open access journals are assessed an article processing charge (APC). These charges cover the costs of production, including editing, peer reviewing, hosting, archiving, and preserving.

    There are other forms of open access publishing including green open access, self-archiving, and preprints. Stanford’s Lane Medical Library provides an accessible guide to understanding open access.

    Here, we offer a basic overview of the most common forms of OA. 

    Gold Open Access Publishing

    Gold Open Access publishing (or Gold OA) is when publishers make journal content available for free on their websites. Examples of Gold OA content can be found at the scientific journal eLife and the publisher PLOS

    The process for Gold OA publishing is similar to that of traditional scientific journals. Authors write and submit to the publisher, and the article undergoes peer review. If accepted into a Gold OA journal, authors will be asked to pay an article processing fee. (In some hybrid model journals, authors may have the choice of whether they want to pay the APC or accept the subscription model.) After the content finishes the editorial and production process, it becomes available for readers.

    Gold OA increases access to scholarly content while maintaining the peer-review process.


    Self-archiving refers to the practice of authors depositing their articles into a repository. 

    Self-archiving contributes to open access by providing a way for authors to share/publish their work without paywalls. This promotes the dissemination of the papers more easily. For example, when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funds research, authors are required to submit the peer-reviewed articles to PubMed Central to make them publicly available.

    Self-archiving belongs under the umbrella of Green Open Access publishing. In this context, authors put their articles, including preprints, into repositories. This self-archiving allows for free access to the research, overcoming traditional paywalls making research more widely available to the public.


    Preprints are preliminary articles that have not yet completed the peer review process. Servers such as BioRxiv and medRxiv publish preprints. Readers may comment on the content, and authors may revise based on that feedback. Posted articles that are submitted to journals go through the traditional peer-review process. Eventually, there may be two versions of the article available: the preprint, which will be free, and a published journal article, which may exist behind a paywall.

    It is important to note that some preprints do not go on to full peer review or the research may be found to be incomplete. The AMWA-EMWA-ISMPP Joint Position Statement on Medical Publications, Preprints, and Peer Review provides additional insights into the differences between traditional peer-review publications and preprints.


    Open access, facilitated by self-archiving, helps discoverability by avoiding paywalls. When research is openly available (without having to pay to read it), it becomes more easily discoverable through search engines, academic databases, and other channels, fostering greater visibility and impact in the academic community and beyond.

    A nuance is that while self-archiving does support discoverability, publishing in a major open-access journal often provides higher visibility compared to self-archiving alone. Open-access journals are usually well-indexed, and their articles are more prominently featured in academic databases and search engines. 

    Distinguishing Between Open Access Publishing and Predatory Publishing

    While OA publishing is a legitimate way to make science more accessible to online readers, there are some entities and individuals who are exploiting the model for profit. 

    These predatory publishers (or pseudoscientific journals) use aggressive tactics and short-circuit the peer review process. Unfortunately, predatory journals are proliferating. In 2021, Cabells Scholarly Analytics, which publishes Predatory Reports, had documented 15,000 predatory journals.

    In response to the threat, AMWA joined with the European Medical Writers Association (EMWA) and the International Society for Medical Publication Professionals (ISMPP) to publish a joint statement condemning the practice. “Predatory journals pose a serious threat both to researchers publishing the results of their work and to the peer-reviewed medical literature itself,” the statement reads.

    How do authors and researchers know how to identify a predatory publisher?

    In 2019, after scholars and publishers from 10 countries convened to discuss the issue, the journal Nature published the following definition.

    “Predatory journals and publishers are entities that prioritize self-interest at the expense of scholarship and are characterized by false or misleading information, deviation from best editorial and publication practices, a lack of transparency, and/or the use of aggressive and indiscriminate solicitation practices.”

    The solicitation practices prey on researchers’ desire to publish the results of their work. 

    The Main Difference

    One of the key ways to determine whether a publisher is predatory is to examine whether they short-change or circumvent the peer-review process that is so essential to ethical publishing practices. 

    Some predatory publishers conduct an accelerated peer review of manuscripts, but they will publish articles regardless of what the reviewers recommend. When peer review is compromised, it can lead to publishing content that supports anti-vax theories, conspiracies, and other pseudoscientific material. 

    AMWA’s free guide, “How To Identify Predatory Publishers,” lists 11 characteristics of predatory journals and provides guidance for evaluating a journal’s peer-review process.

    Openness and Responsibility

    Predatory publishing is likely to exist as long as there are profitable opportunities to exploit the good intentions of the open access movement. 

    Researchers, authors, and medical communicators can play a part by helping to identify and recognize predatory publishers, depriving them of the fuel they need to survive.

    Open access publishing promises a democratic and inclusive model for expanding access to critical scholarship and scientific discoveries.

    AMWA acknowledges the contributions of Dirkan Toroser, PhD, CMPP, for peer-review support in the development of this blog and recognizes Deb Whippen for providing additional resources for the article.Medical_Writing_Professionals_Guide_to_Advancing_Your_Career_Download

    February 26, 2024 at 11:27 AM

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